14 July 2015

How Handwoven Silk is Made

We had the opportunity to visit the Silk Farm in Siem Reap. They offer free guided tours during business hours, and because our family constitutes a relatively large group, they actually sent a shuttle bus straight to our hotel to pick us up and drop us back off again after the tour, which worked out perfectly for us.

Maybe it's because I have a long-standing fascination with fashion, cloth, and sewing in general, but this tour was a highlight of the trip for me. I thought I'd give you all a glimpse of how the silk-making process goes:

Mulberry Leaves

The whole process begins with the cultivation and pruning of mulberry trees--a silkworm's favorite thing to eat! Our guide explained to us that there are many different varieties of mulberry trees, and in addition to being munched on by silkworms, humans can use them in a variety of ways, one of which involves steeping the leaves in order to make mulberry tea.

Angkor Silk Farm

This is the building where the silkworms are housed. It is built up off of the ground, and everywhere where it touches the ground, the posts are sunk in a pool of water. This is to help prevent ant infestation. The ants want to come in and eat the silkworms!

Angkor Silk Farm

He's showing us the trays of just-hatched baby silk worms. They were incredibly tiny, and a very dark gray, nearly black, sort of color. Hard to imagine that they grow to become these:

Not-yet fully grown silkworms. Munching away.

These silkworms are finally done eating and are in the beginning stages of making their coccoons.

The guide showed us cocoons that are unusable for making silk. If the silkworms are allowed to mature into the moths that metamorphosis turns them into, their cocoons are no longer usable for silk. Therefore, most silkworms at a silk farm are not allowed to complete the process of metamorphosis, although a certain percentage are, for breeding purposes. Apparently, you can actually tell a male apart from a female simply by looking at the cocoon, although I wasn't very good at guessing.

The outer layer of the cocoon is what is spun into raw silk, which has a rougher texture. The cocoons are boiled together, and strands from 50-80 individual cocoons are wound into a single thread.

After the outer layer of raw silk has been removed, the rest of the cocoon is made of a finer fiber which is spun into fine silk. This silk thread is much smoother and shinier than the raw silk thread. You can tell that the cocoons in this lady's pot are much smaller than those in the first lady's pot, because these cocoons have already had the layer of raw silk removed.

Angkor Silk Farm

Before the silk is dyed, it is bleached and degummed. The guide showed us some of the items used to make different colors of natural dyes, though he said that these days, about 90% of what their company produces uses artificial dyes because they are cheaper and produce a more uniform color.

Angkor Silk Farm

This machine spins the silk thread from the large spools onto small spools that will be used later in the process of making silk fabric.

Angkor Silk Farm

Some of the thread is then spread onto a frame like this. Pieces of plastic are tied around wefts of thread in an intricate and precise pattern, and then the thread is dip-dyed. The parts of the thread that were covered with plastic don't get dyed, and so the thread takes on a repeating color pattern. Think tie-dye, but on a way higher level. The pattern that this lady is tying into her thread, when woven, will, due to the patterned dying, bear the same pattern as the patterned cloth hanging in the background. Isn't that incredible?

This lady is spinning the thread that has been dyed into a precise pattern onto smaller sticks, which you can see lying in a row in front of her. These sticks are numbered in order, so that the weavers know which one to take next when one stick ends, so that the pattern will continue to match properly.

And here is a scarf-in-progress on the loom. You can see that it's being made with the same purple and turquoise thread that the previous lady was putting onto numbered sticks.

The Angkor Silk Farm, we were told, is a training center. The people currently training in different aspects of silk fabric production there will go back to their own villages to carry on their work once they have finished their training period.

The Silk Farm tour ended at a shop showcasing their wares. After you've seen the long and involved process of making the fabric, it becomes abundantly clear why anything made from handwoven silk is expensive! Prices for this fabric should be high, because of the sheer number of man-hours required to make it. I really enjoyed wandering the shop and seeing finished products, and came out with just a little piece of silk of my very own:

It's a little wallet, just about as big as my palm. It's perfect for me since I only carry a small purse. Shhh! I'm technically not supposed to remember this since it's for my birthday....
Farrah said...

I remember going on a tour like this when I was in China with my family back in 2007! I thought it was absolutely fascinating, and it really did make us all understand why handwoven silk is so darn expensive. I really liked wandering around the store at the end too--there were so many beautiful things!

Rachel ¦¦ A Nesting Nomad said...

I'm so annoyed we ran out of time to go to the silk farm while we were in Siem Reap. I just couldn't drag myself away from those temples...! It looks like a brilliant day trip, and definitely eye opening re the cost of silk and the skill involved in printing those beautiful patterns. The closest we got was my husband ordering silk worms to eat at one of the local restaurants o__0

Inge Jane said...

Wow, I would have never known so much went into the process! I agree, it should be expensive!

Inge Jane said...

Wow, I would have never known so much went into the process! I agree, it should be expensive!

Christina @ Hugs and Lattes said...

Wow that's fascinating!!

Cristina @ I Say Nomato said...

Oh wow, this is so fascinating! I love how the dyeing of the fabric is like tie-dye, and I can't believe it turns into those amazing patterns!

Tayler Morrell said...

Did you know that the Mormon pioneers who settled Utah tried to start a silk economy? The women would carry the eggs in their dress pockets until they hatched. There are a ton of other funny stories. Ultimately this adventure failed.

Unknown said...

wow who knew the process was so intricate! It looks difficult what the women are doing; so impressive to someone like me who literally cannot sew a button on lol. Thanks for sharing this!

Veronica Lee Burns said...

WHOA that is seriously impressive and cool!

Kari said...

Wow! I never knew how intricate and involved the process was! How interesting! I agree that now it makes sense for the high price on those items. Thanks for the tour:)

Midnight Cowgirl said...

That is fascinating, and what incredible craftsmanship!

Suzanne said...

This was fascinating! I've always adored silk but now have a much deeper appreciation for the amount of effort that goes into creating it.

Will be sharing this : )


Marina @ Parental Journey said...

Look at that - amazing!! :)

Audrey said...

Wow... that's really intricate! (And maybe a little icky? I hate bugs, even if they do make beautiful scarves. Haha!) So cool that you got to experience this!